The Space Machine: Baraka and Science Fiction

By Youngquist, Paul | African American Review, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Space Machine: Baraka and Science Fiction


Youngquist, Paul, African American Review


Music is the weapon of the Future. (Fela Kuti)

Space is black. Check out any episode of Star Trek. When Captain Kirk and his faithful crew boldly go where no man has gone before, it's a journey into blackness, punctuated with a few bright and shining stars. Maybe that goes without saying. Since Sputnik popped the top of Earth's prophylactic atmosphere, everybody knows the color of space. There are myriad pictures to prove it. But forget pictures for a minute. Approach the question culturally, and it becomes obvious that space is more than just a transparent black background for the space race and its colonialist Enterprise. When Sun Ra, the great theorist and master mage of astro-black mythology, says, "Space is the Place," he means that it's the place of blackness: black space. What, then, is the relationship between space and race? A question for science fiction, that vernacular idiom of cultural imagination and critique.

While most science fiction remains at best complacent in examining the role of race in techno-scientific culture and its possible futures (having been produced for an adolescent, white middle-class consumer), an insurgence appears to be occurring in the creation of black science fiction, or what a recently published anthology calls "speculative fiction from the African Diaspora." That anthology, Dark Matter, gathers together an impressive array of black writers who are producing a distinguished body of black science fiction. Samuel Delaney is no longer the sole brother writing scifi on an otherwise white planet, nor is Octavia Butler its Hottentot Venus, curious queen in foreign climes. From George S. Schulyer to Nalo Hopkinson, from Charles R. Sanders to Tananarive Due, a renaissance--or, maybe better, a naissance--of black science fiction is under way that augurs unimagined possibilities.

Walter Mosley suggests why in "Black to the Future," a brief commentary that appears in Dark Matter:

   The genre speaks most clearly to those who are dissatisfied with
   the way things are: adolescents, post adolescents, escapists,
   dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless. And this
   may explain the appeal that science fiction holds for a great many
   African Americans.... Through science fiction you can have a black
   president, a black world, or simply a say in the way things are.
   This power to imagine is the first step in changing the world.
   (405-06)

Black science fiction begins by affirming the blackness of space, the material space of social life rather than the transparent space of imperialist expansion. It's the space of this world, and not of the galaxy, that needs a change. Black science fiction dares to imagine such possibilities. In this regard, Amiri Baraka becomes one of its forerunners, and his inclusion among the writers in Dark Matter proves instructive. While accounting for only a small part of his astonishing body of work, Baraka's science fiction asserts the reality that space is black, or will be. Working in close concert with Sun Ra's astro-black mythologizing, but toward even more physical ends, Baraka imagines a future in which space materializes a previously transparent blackness. And his means for pursuing this future is music. Black music is the doomsday weapon of Baraka's science fiction.

Although it would be overstating the case to call Baraka a science fiction writer, he makes it clear in his autobiography that the genre constitutes part of his cultural heritage as a twentieth-century city kid. Growing up in Newark meant listening to the radio and imagining life's possibilities in the terms it provided. "The radio," he says, "was always another school for my mind" (26). The shows that captured his imagination conjured up adventure and strangeness: The Shadow, I Love a Mystery, Inner Sanctum, Escape. The last was particularly influential. It broadcast stories by famous writers, stories of fantasy and science fiction by the likes of H. …

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